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What You Need to Know About Choosing a Custom Surfboard: Q&A with Jake Harman

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In dire need of a new surfboard but not really knowing what I wanted, I went to a longtime friend and surfboard shaper, Jake Harman, of Harman Street Surfboards for advice. Jake is a shaper who splits his time in between Victoria and Western Australia. You can find him at Vandas Surf in Torquay, Victoria (4/8 Sawmills Way).

I showed Jake video footage of the wave I paddle out at most frequently. I told him my weaknesses (paddle strength), style of surfing, and color preferences (of course)! Working together, Jake was able to shape a board for me that is easily my favorite board I’ve ever ridden.

I digress. At The Salt Sirens, we’ve caught up with Jake to talk about his history of shaping and surfing as well as what surfers should know before purchasing a custom surfboard.

Connect with Jake to build your own board.

Photo: Andrew Edwards

We’ll cover:

  • How Jake Harman got into surfing and shaping
  • What to tell your shaper when you’re thinking of a custom board
  • Jake walks through a board he made for The Salt Sirens
  • When should you get a custom board?
  • The best shape for beginners who want to progress
  • Jake’s favorite wave in the world
  • What to do when you have too many surfboards
  • Jake’s best board
  • Step-by-step detail on how to choose a custom surfboard (super helpful info!)

Chantae Reden: Can you tell us a bit about how you got into surfing and board shaping?

Jake Harman: I grew up in a fishing town north of Perth, called Yanchep, about a 10-minute walk from the beach. My Dad and Uncle were both surfers so I naturally got sucked into it. My dad got me my first board for my eighth birthday. It was a 6’4 x 19 1/4 x 2 Star board shaped by Dave Lewy, I think. It had glass on fins and a rounded pin tail… oh, and a stack of dings. That afternoon, my dad and I got some resin and glass fixed the dings on it. The next day we went to Lancelin Back Beach on a two-foot day. I was so scared, I kept crying and crying. My dad told me to man up and pushed me into my first wave. I stood up and that was it!

Over the next month, I reckon I made my mum take me to the beach every day after school until pretty much every one of my board’s ding repairs fell off. My dad was away for work so I just started hacking at it until I could fix the board on my own. The cycle repeated: surf it, ding it, fix it.

This was back in the day when there was forever-old boards on roadside pick ups. My dad’s friends would give them to me. Then, I bought a couple boards for like $20. I just became obsessed. By the time I was about 12 years old, I was doing the most absolutely rubbish repairs on my mates boards for pocket money.

At age 15, I did school work experience at Oceanline, a local custom boardshop. Chris Mckenzie and Joshua Doherty taught me everything from repairs, shaping, glassing, sanding, sprays, retail, and just generally how to be in the factory. It was supposed to be a one-week block for school, but then I stretched it to two, then every weekend, then school holidays… until one day, they started paying me for helping out. It all went from there.

Suddenly, I was fixing dings in Byron Bay, Torquay, Puerto Escondido, Hawaii… then glassing, shaping, sanding, doing art. It all snowballed from there. I spent another couple of good stints in Western Australia expanding my skills under Chris and Joshua’s guidance, and had countless other mentors in multiple factories along the way.

Photo: Addi Roberts

As for the name of Harman Street Surfboards, it stems from my mum’s shed. The shed had a street sign with our surname on it. I think someone and their mates had too many beers one night, and saw the sign on the way home. As all good lads do, they took the sign and bolted it up in the shed. That’s where the label comes from!

CR: It seems like everything that happened was serendipitous for you and your shaping career–with plenty of nudges from strong mentors along the way.

What should people look for when ordering a custom board? What does their shaper need to know?

JH: I think it was Frank Zappa who said, “talking about music is like dancing about architecture.” Surfing can be somewhat the same.

Photo: Trent Slatter

For example, I came in from a surf at Bells Beach the other night on one of my twins feeling a little frustrated that I wanted more “woosh” in my turns. I can use words like “drive” or “release” to describe it but mostly it just wasn’t quite as “wooshy” as I wanted. So, I changed the shape of the fins to allow more “tip flex” and now it’s slightly better. I’m going to pull the edges back a little bit and see how that goes. To me, the point of getting a board custom-built is to really dial in your equipment to be exactly how you want it. 

This is the thing with doing boards custom is that you have to be able to articulate what it is you want. Every surfer has a different language to describe their feelings, though. Some surfers I’ve worked with are very good at turning feelings into words. Some surfers will some guys will just move their body and go, “I want, like, kinda uhh” and do some weird sort of hand jive that seems to make no sense–except I know them, I surf with them, I share boards with them, and it’s intuitive what they’re trying to tell me.

I would say if you want to get a board custom, find a shaper who’s boards you can relate to. Maybe you’ve tried a couple boards or maybe you’ve seen their boards online. Whatever it is, you have an inkling that the shaper is a good match for you. Go talk to that shaper.

Go to the shaper with the board you’ve already got. Have an idea of what you really like about it, and what you don’t like about it. Aesthetically, and feel-wise you know what it is that you like about that board. You might not know what changes you need to get more of the feel you want. That’s the shaper’s job. Don’t be afraid to say what you think you might want to change and why. A good shaper will be able to take that information and validate it. You’ll discuss the pros and cons. The key is to open up lines of communication. These days, shapers often have stock model boards that can be a great starting point to work from as well.

CR: When it came to shaping my board, I didn’t really have one in mind. I only had a vague idea. I knew it needed to be paddle-friendly but small enough to duck dive–and easy to turn. I also wanted it to be something I loved the look of. It felt like you took all this info and came back with something I wouldn’t have asked for myself.

Can you explain your thoughts you went with the shape you did?

JH: The board I made for you, Chantae, is a thruster. The overall shape was inspired by my surf sessions on the mid-west coast of Western Australia, where most surf spots are a good kilometer paddle off shore. I rode my mum and dad’s old single fins a bunch because they paddled great, were easy to ride, and I could still thread barrels or do turns on them. Those heavy old boards would handle the chop that comes with those open ocean style waves amazingly. Over time, those boards morphed into bonzers and eventually I found away to combine the design aspects that I really liked in those original boards to the design aspects I like in more modern boards.

The general outline of your board is quite similar to a 70’s-style board. It has a wide point forward of center, the nose is kind of fullish but not too full, and it has a long drawn-out tail. It has a low entry rocker, kinda flat beneath the chest then flicked out the tail. For the stretching sort of reef breaks you’re surfing I pushed the volume distribution two thirds of the way up the board, kinda around the wide point with a single to double concave to try keep a bit more rocker through your rail line. 

The whole point is that you should be able to paddle in easy, get up, and go. Wherever your feet land, the surfboard should handle the drop with ease, not outrun waves but be fast enough to make most sections. Then, you should be able to step back and turn it really easily. 

I have several variations of that board that I’ve tweaked to be better in heaving slabbing reefs or West Oz Beachies, or to be able to do big vertical turns on open points like Bells Beach or Winki Pop. I’m even playing around with a step-down version of your board for doing turns and airs in mush. I also took the same concept to a couple of big wave boards that my mates and I have been riding in 20-25 foot outer reefs.

CR: I’m feeling a newfound affinity for the board I’m already so in love with. Thanks for the walk-through.

Do you think it’s worth it for beginners to go for a custom board? Or should these be reserved for more experienced surfers only? 

JH: Getting a custom board is 100% is worth it if you’re up, riding, and feeling it. If nothing else, you can choose the colors and the board will have your name on it.

As far as getting the most out of your progression, wait until you can trim and sort-of doing turns. Go from there. You can borrow boards, buy secondhand, hire boards, do whatever. When you find something that feels rightish, then go custom.

Honestly, I think every surfer that you would consider to be at a basic/intermediate level should be on a custom board. Why would you ride Mick Fanning’s model, when you could ride your own model? Even if you like how Mick surfs, start with one of his boards, get to know it, and then start making changes. Don’t get caught up in the surf industry’s spin!

CR: Great advice. I wish I’d gone custom sooner rather than spending years on pop-out boards that didn’t account for my specific surf ability and the waves I loved to ride.

What board do you recommend for beginners who still want to be able to progress with their board? 

JH: Your board is a great start. Otherwise, consider mid-lengths. 7’0 plus, easy to paddle, stable, light enough to carry, and you don’t have the fear of hurting yourself on a log. These boards look and feel cooler than your standard mini-mal or foamie so you don’t have to feel like a total kook carrying it down the beach.

You see guys like Joel Tudor, Devon Howard, or Torryn Martin who absolutely rip the bag on mid-length boards so you’re hardly limited by the board in some respects.

CR: Dying! I do love my basic mini-mal, even though it certainly is kooktastic.

So tell us, where’s your favorite wave in the world? 

JH: There are so many! My favorite thing is to look on nautical charts, work out what conditions could light up a certain stretch of reef or whatever, and then go exploring. That’s my favorite thing in the world! 

Recently, I stumbled across this psycho right point. I got there while it was still dark. It was six to eight feet, slab barrel on the take off. Down the line, there’s the most psychoest second section barrel that is just lunacy. There’s kelp and rocks and seals and just stuff going on everywhere. The next day was three to six feet and we surfed for probably eight hours with only two other dudes out! 

The thing that blew my mind about the place is on the smaller day my mate and I walked around the headland and were staring straight into the eye of probably a 10-12-15-foot beachie barrel. We’re going back to tow it the first shot we get. 

And no, I am not telling you where it is. That would be disrespectful to the land and the people who live there. I’m not even going to tell you what state it’s in. 

Photo: Peter Jovic

CR: Wow, that sounds incredible and… a wave that I won’t be paddling for anytime soon.

Tell us, how many surfboards is too many to own? 

JH: Build a bigger shed!

CR: Describe your favorite board. What do you love about it?

I have a really nice 7’6″ step up I did for myself. I’ve done a fair few of these boards, which has a super clean, classic shape. It’s the one! There’s not a thing I would change. It just feels so good taking off on a 10-foot reef break, driving off the bottom, and just wrapping it as hard as I can under the lip, around the pocket then drawing a line through the pocket fading off the bottom and jamming the breaks on and getting a barrel on the inside shelf. I kick off every wave feeling like Tom Curren.

Before I was shaping my own boards, I used to ride mostly Chris Mckenzie’s shapes. We have my shortboards so dialed into how I want them that I still get some surfboards from him. These days, he makes me ghost them and glass them myself. I recently got a 6’2 Hewy and a 5’9 Booster from him and they’re so mental. All I want to do is go surfing every time I think about them! 

So probably those three boards at the moment.

CR: Okay, can you walk us through how you decide on a surfboard shape step-by-step. Take us with you into the shed.

JH: I’ll share a few basic rules of thumb I go by when choosing a board.

Step 1: Mirror the wave

Generally I’ll try mirror the shape of the wave with my board. If the curve of the wave is quite flat (Bells Beach, Malibu), I’ll use a flatter rocker. If the curve is tight (The Box, Teahupoo), I’d use a more rockered-out board. If you’re looking at say an Indo-esque barrel that’s more almond shape, I’d chose a board some where in between.

Then, I’ll mirror the length of the actual section and lines I need to draw in the length of the board so a wave (North Point) with a long fast section I’ll ride a longer board than I would in a more nuggety bowly wave like The Box.

 On a wave like Snapper, I’ll ride a shorter, more rockered-out board than I would at a wave like Winki Pop because its the actual section you want your board to reflect, not the length of the wave as a whole.

Step 2: Remember that more wide = more glide = more slide

What do I mean by that? The tail on my standard 6’2″ shortboard that I ride from three-to-eight feet is about 14’1/4″ inches wide. The tail on my 5’9″ that I ride when its one-to-four feet is more like 15 inches wide (more wide). Other than that, there’s not a huge difference in the shape of the two boards. But, one is outstandingly easier to roll across a fat section (more glide) on then release out the tail (more slide)

This theory works in reverse. Hence the narrow tails on big-wave guns that need to hold. If you don’t believe me, go down your local point or junky beach break and look at what boards the best surfing is being done on.
The more surface area you have between your feet, the slower you will have to be going in order to get up and on a plane… but the more likely you are to skip out and die though if the section squares up on you.

With four fin set ups and parallel outlines you can get away with a wider tail at higher speeds. This is particularly worth noting when you’re looking at big-wave boards where quite often you’re going at 50 km/hr to even 70 km/hr but you need to get across really fat, long sections. Some big-wave spots like Nazare or Cow bommie might have huge barreling sections, but you have to draw a really long line off the rope before you can bomb it down into that section. Then, it might be a really long, fat section between that and the next section. It’s also particularly important when surfing slabs or heavy beach breaks where you need the most amount of foam possible in the shortest possible board that needs to fit super tight at the base of the wave. 

The wide point and foil to are huge factors because they work together to create the volume distribution and that is possibly the biggest factor in how a board goes outside of the rocker.

If the wide point and foil is forward, the board will paddle better and want to draw lines more down the line. It will be more stable in skitty situations and be harder to go vertical on. Look at your classic Gerry Lopez pipeline gun, Pyzel’s Ghost, and Haydenshapes’ Hypto Krypto. These boards all have the same design points in this area. They are all shaped for different styles of waves and all promote long, down-the-line styles of surfing. As radical as John John surfs, his bottom turns are always deep and powerful and there’s something super classic and stretched out about his carves right until he snaps them back at the most critical moment.

Compare those boards to say an Al Merrick Neck Beard or DFR with wide, hippie, boxy tails. A larger percentage of the volume is distributed back under the feet. Then look at the surfing Dane Reynolds does on those kinds of boards. There are iconic clips of him leaning back on the tail at Rincon, wrapping from his back foot in clean but tight arcs in the pocket and then weighting his front foot release popping that corky tail out of the water.

Those dudes can do more or less what ever they want on almost any board but an average surfer will greatly benefit from having two boards, just to make it that little bit easier to feel their way through a barrel or to make their board go vert on a less than ideal section.

CR: Thanks so much for the influx of surf info, Jake. I hope you finally get that tow-in moment at your secret wave. I’ll be pinching my pennies and hitting you up for a new board soon.

If you want to connect with Jake and chat about making a custom board for you, contact Harman Street Surfboards on Instagram. Find him at Vandas Surf in Torquay, Victoria.

This post is not sponsored. Chantae’s custom surfboard was purchased with ad money made off of this website–all in the name of research. Please share this article around to help our writers buy more boards. Thanks for your support.